WASHINGTON (AP) — Starting Tuesday, "gluten free" labels on packaged foods
have real meaning. Until now, the term "gluten-free" was unregulated, and
manufacturers made their own decisions about what it means.
requirement is especially important for people who suffer from celiac
disease and don't absorb nutrients well. They can get sick from the gluten
found in wheat and other cereal grains.
Under a rule
announced a year ago, food manufacturers had until this week to ensure
that anything labeled gluten-free contains less than 20 parts per million
of gluten — ensuring that those products are technically free of wheat,
rye and barley. That amount is generally recognized by the medical
community to be low enough so that most people who have celiac disease
won't get sick if they eat it.
must be labeled on food packages but barley and rye are often hidden
causes abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea, and people who have it can
suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other long-term medical problems.
Celiac is a diagnosed illness that is more severe than gluten sensitivity,
which some people self-diagnose. According to the American Celiac Disease
Alliance, an estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease.
A decade ago,
most people had never heard of celiac. But awareness and diagnosis of the
illness have grown exponentially in recent years. It's not entirely clear
why. Some researchers say it was underdiagnosed; others say it's because
people eat more processed wheat products, such as pasta and baked goods,
than in past decades, and those items use types of wheat that have a
higher gluten content.
The standard will
ensure that companies can't label products "gluten-free" if they are
cross-contaminated from other products made in the same manufacturing
facility. The rules don't apply to restaurants, but the Food and Drug
Administration is encouraging them to comply.
have become big business in the last several years, topping an estimated
$4 billion in sales last year. Millions of people are buying the foods
because they say they make them feel better, even if they don't have
Alice Bast of the
National Foundation for Celiac Awareness says the gluten-free trend has
been good for those diagnosed with celiac because of the increased variety
of options in the grocery store. But she says it also may have prompted
some companies to lose focus on the people who need those foods the most.
regulations are "raising awareness that there is a disease associated with
the gluten-free diet," she said.
Steve Hughes, CEO
of Boulder Brands, which owns leading gluten-free food companies Glutino
and Udi's, says his company's products all have 10 parts per million of
gluten, less than the new standard. He praises the FDA regulations for
being a "stake in the ground" that can increase the integrity of the
can't have confidence in the products long-term, it's going to hurt the
overall trend," he said.